Viola Burley Leak Washington, DC
Middle Passage
Cotton,cotton blends
84" x 72"

Cathleen Richardson Bailey
Pittsburgh, PA.
Cotton, synthetics, wool, beads, paint
33" x 30"

Myrah Brown Green
Brooklyn, NY
Dancin' at the Tree of Life
Cotton, batik, cowrie shells
58" x 45"

Myrah Brown Green
Brooklyn, NY
Wandering Spirit
Bali batiks, cottons, cotton blends, cowrie shells
78" x 57"

Women in the Hadley family
Clinton County, OH
and Wayne County, IN Abolitionist Quilt
c. 1842
Courtesy the Clinton County Historical Society

Fifth graders
Amherstburg Public School
Amherstburg, Ontario
Amherstburg Public School Children's Map Freedom Quilt
Cotton, cotton blends
65" x 58"
Courtesy the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Center

Oberlin Seniors
Oberlin, OH
Oberlin Underground Railroad Quilt
Cottons, cotton blends
103" x 70"
Courtesy Oberlin Seniors of Neighborhood House, Inc.




Threads of Freedom: The Underground Railroad Story in Quilts

Oberlin, Ohio

May 13 to August 26, 2001

"Let Slavery Perish!" "Born a Slave, Died Free." These epitaphs are on the gravestones of two former fugitive slaves buried in the Oberlin Cemetery. Many of these people came to Oberlin and traveled through it with the help of the Underground Railroad. This nationwide, informal network of fugitive slaves and their supporters was particularly strong in Ohio, which became known as its "trunk line." In 1787 Congress abolished slavery in the Northwest Territory, a region that became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. For slaves fleeing from Kentucky and western Virginia, this meant that for a distance of about 350 miles, the first step toward freedom was just across the Ohio River. Because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 still permitted southern slaveholders to apprehend fugitives in northern states, however, once the fugitives were in Ohio they continued north into Canada, which had no such provision. The distance from the slave states north to Canada was shortest through Ohio.

Several nationally known individuals associated with antislavery activity and the Underground Railroad were active in Ohio. Levi Coffin, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Mercer Langston, and John Brown were Ohio residents. Sojourner Truth gave her famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech in Akron. Sarah Margru Kinson, youngest captive on the notorious slave ship Amistad, was educated in Oberlin. The National Park Service has identified ten Ohio Underground Railroad sites in its National Register of Historic Places, more than exist in any other state.

Because the visibility of the Underground Railroad coincides with the largest quilt revival in history, it is not surprising that many quilters choose the Underground Railroad and the events that led up to it as the subjects of their quilts. This exhibition, THREADS OF FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD STORY IN QUILTS, is thematic. The quiltmakers, many from Ohio, range from self-taught quilters to professionally trained artists. They call on historical facts, myths, and symbols to articulate their visions and speak to us through their quilts.

Not surprisingly, several quilters depicted the horrors of slavery in their quilts, using such familiar images as lynching, slave chains, and the well-known and infamous drawing of a slave ship. Among the most powerful of these quilts are Viola Burley Leak's Middle Passage and two quilts from Carolyn Mazloomi's Slave Series. Beatrice Mitchell made a quilt for her sailor-nephew, Paul. As she worked on Paul's Quilt she realized that the nautical images she included -- ships, anchors, waves -- also symbolized her family's heritage as descendants of enslaved Africans brought by ships to America. She redesigned her border, changing its motif to slave chains. Quite different is Cathleen Richardson Bailey's, Shh!!, which shows the fearful eyes of slaves escaping at night. Myrah Brown Green in her Dancin' at the Tree of Life and Wandering Spirit celebrates the tenacity that helped many slaves "make it through." Viola Burley Leak's The Family commemorates the strength of the African-American family.

The earliest quilt in the exhibition is the Abolitionist Quilt, an album quilt made around 1842 by Hadley family members of Clinton County, Ohio, and Wayne County, Indiana. The signers were members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). All these quiltmakers were abolitionists who supported immediate emancipation. The Indiana Yearly Meeting of Friends opposed abolitionism and supported gradualism instead. In 1842 all the signers who had gone from Ohio to Indiana were "read out" of their meeting in a separation that lasted thirteen painful years.

Because the Underground Railroad involved traveling from the South to the northern states and Canada, several quilters included maps on their quilts. In 1997, the Columbus Metropolitan Quilters Guild made a quilt depicting Ohio's role in the Underground Railroad. They based their quilt, Ohio's Underground Trails, on historian Wilbur Siebert's map of Underground Railroad routes throughout Ohio. For many slaves who successfully traveled from the South to Canada, the most accessible goal was Essex County, in southwestern Ontario. The genealogical Todd Family Quilt, made by Ione Todd and her daughter, Deonna Todd Green, of Remus, Michigan, includes both embroidered texts and pictures, including a map of Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan and Ontario, the route their ancestor, Steven Todd, followed to escape from slavery. The center block records his wedding to Caroline Kaeler in Windsor, Essex County. Another map quilt, the Amherstburg Public School Children's Map Freedom Quilt was made in 1998 by fifth-graders in Amherstburg, Essex County, who dedicated their quilt "to any person who dreamt to be free."

Amherstburg and Buxton were two of the family-based communities that former slaves established in Essex County. Family was understandably important to these people, who had seen generations of their own families destroyed by slavery. The Buxton Museum has a collection of eleven quilts made there. Of these, six are signature quilts representing Buxton families. Local families still celebrate reunions and commemorate them with quilts. The entire community is honored in the Buxton Settlers Quilt, made by the settlers' descendants in 1967, the year the Buxton Museum opened.

Residents of Oberlin, which was founded by abolitionists, have long been aware of their town's involvement in the Underground Railroad. In 1982 members of Oberlin Seniors documented Oberlin's Underground Railroad activities in the Oberlin Underground Railroad Quilt. Quiltmakers included fifth-generation descendants of both fugitive slaves and abolitionists. Their quilt has been used as a teaching tool in the Oberlin public schools. Like the Amherstburg school children, Oberlin third-graders made an Underground Railroad Quilt in 1989, as the culmination of a course in local history.

Several quilters commemorated heroines of the Underground Railroad. Cathleen Richardson Bailey made Safe House: Tribute to Harriet Tubman and Her Big Gun and Hatchet to strengthen the popular image of Harriet Tubman. In 1980 a group of women from northeastern Ohio succeeded in bringing Judy Chicago's Dinner Party to Cleveland. The Akron Steering Committee of The Ohio-Chicago Art Project, Inc. made a quilt honoring Sojourner Truth for the International Quilting Bee, which toured with Chicago's exhibit. Ricky Clark also made a quilt for the International Quilting Bee. Her quilt, Sarah Margru Kinson, honors the youngest captive on the notorious slave-ship, Amistad.

Finally, the Underground Railroad inspired several quilters to make more than one Underground Railroad quilt. After working on Ohio's Underground Trails, Barbara Payne went on to make four Underground Railroad Quilts of her own. The Todd Family Quilt is one of three nearly identical quilts made by Ione Todd and her daughter, Deonna. Caroline Mazloomi's quilts in this exhibit are part of her Slave Series. These quilts represent the culture and legacy of their makers. Through quilts the makers speak to us all of their cultural roots and social concerns. Although the Underground Railroad was tremendously effective in its time, we still have much work to do to ensure true equality and freedom for all Americans.

Ricky Clark, Quilt Historian
Editor and co-author, Quilts in Community: Ohio’s Traditions

Akron Steering Committee of The Ohio-Chicago Art Project, Inc.
Akron, Kent and Cleveland, OH
In Honor of Sojourner Truth
Cottons, cotton blends
24" x 24" x 24"
Courtesy The International Quilting Bee

Barbara Payne
Columbus, OH
The Underground Railroad
c. 1998
Cottons, cotton blends
72" x 59"




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